Monday Mornings with Madison

Humor Me

There is nothing comical about the power of humor.  Many of the greatest leaders in history are reported to have had a good sense of humor, even those that might have also had reportedly great flaws.  For example, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, who was believed to suffer from clinical depression, was known to have a keen wit.  Possibly using humor as an antidote to his melancholy, Lincoln had no qualm about using self-deprecating remarks to ease tension and bond with others.  U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also understood the power of humor.  Of it he said, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.”  The strong connection between humor and leadership was confirmed in a 2012 study by the Bell Leadership Institute in Chapel Hill, NC.  The study found that when employees were asked to describe the strengths and weaknesses of senior leadership in their organizations, sense of humor and work ethic were mentioned twice as much as any other phrases. In the study, they surveyed approximately 2,700 employees in a variety of workplace settings over a two-year period.  The obvious conclusion is that humor is a vital tool of leadership.

While it’s been said that laughter is the best medicine, it turns out that hilarity has not only real curative power, but also a number of other functions as well.  It can be used for good.  Humor can help a person bond with another person, release tension, set a person at ease, attract a mate or entertain a child.  It can also be used to shed light on social issues in order to bring about change.  But humor can also be used negatively to put a rival in his place, to camouflage outright aggression or to express an otherwise unacceptable thought.  In the form of satire, humor can be used to mock and ridicule social and political institutions and individuals in the public eye.  Indeed, humor has as many functions and styles as there are knock-knock jokes and variations on the “why did the chicken cross the road?” joke.  So the key to using humor as a tool for success is knowing when and how to use it.

Tickle the Funny Bone

Sense of humor is an often-overlooked quality in leadership because it doesn’t seem quite as important as communication, experience, or knowledge.  However, the best managers use humor to improve the performance of their direct reports.  They use humor to spark their staff’s enthusiasm, deliver an honest message in a good-natured way, boost productivity, bring teams together, and see the light side of a situation.  Humor can also ease a tense situation and add flavor to an otherwise boring agenda. It can also foster an environment of camaraderie and make a meeting or workplace happier.  It allows employees to see their boss’ humanity.  It is also associated with a high degree of emotional intelligence

People remember people who make them smile!  But having a sense of humor is not just about being able to make a joke.  It is also about being able to take a joke.  And it also serves as a defense against fear and anxiety.  That is why humor is an invaluable tool for everyone, not just leaders.  It is a useful quality for anyone who has to deal with other people:  coworkers, colleagues, customers, vendors, and even competitors.  That includes just about everyone since few people have jobs that allow them to be total hermits.

In fact, a study from the Journal of Applied Psychology found that just one use of humor among teammates at work resulted in improved performance immediately, and then continued up to two years later. Levity also improves recall. It is often the shortest pipeline to the brain’s memory bank.

Humor Can Backfire

In today’s society, a good sense of humor is highly valued. We seek it out in others and most people are proud to claim it in themselves, perhaps even more than good looks or intelligence.  If someone has a great sense of humor, it is assumed that the person is happy, socially confident and has a healthy perspective on life.  It is also seen as a sign of keen intellect.  However, seeing humor as a quality is a fairly recent viewpoint.  In fact, admiration for the comically-gifted is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The ancient Greeks believed humor was essentially an aggressive characteristic.  It was seen as a flaw, not a quality.  And humor can be that too.  Indeed, humor can be used in destructive ways.  Less effective leaders use humor in negative ways – to show off, cut people down with sarcasm, and overly distract people from the task at hand.  Teasing humor and put-down humor can be hurtful and destructive.  William Arthur Ward once said that A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that can add balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.”  Of course, that pole can also be used as a stick with which to beat others over the head.  Insults veiled as sarcastic humor give the person a shield to hide behind but does nothing to protect the recipient from real, lasting damage to his self-esteem and his relationship with the passive aggressive jokester.  Therefore, humor can be a double-edged sword.  It can forge better relationships and help cope with life, or it can be corrosive, eating away at self-esteem and antagonizing others.  The key, then, is to use humor discerningly.

Being Funny

Just how much wry wit and comic relief is advisable at work depends on the specific corporate culture of a given company.  That said, there is an appreciation forwell-timed lightheartedness even in the stuffiest of boardrooms.  A jovial atmosphere encourages innovation and smart risks, which lead to greater productivity.  Use humor to:

1.  Show your humanity.

When humor is used effectively, it shows that there is a real person behind the mundane professional business façade. Infusing laughter within the team fosters an open and honest workplace

2.  Share the limelight.

It’s good to be humorous from time to time, but also allow others to be funny, too.  It is just as important to laugh with others, as it is to make others laugh.  The goal is to create a comfortable, productive atmosphere.  It isn’t a competition to see who is the funniest.  There is no prize for being “funniest employee.”

3.  Diffuse tension.

The best speakers know to start any conference with a funny story or joke.  An occasional self-deprecating joke or amusing anecdote can help to break the tension barrier in a meeting.  Knowing that a person has the ability to be lighthearted establishes fertile ground for collaboration and cooperation.

4.  Connect with a tough coworker.

Perhaps there is a manager or colleague that is very stuffy.  Humor can be effective in breaking through the tough façade by adding levity.

5.  Keep it positive.

Wit is good, but make sure it is not at another person’s expense. While it may be easy and tempting to take a potshot at a co-worker, the rule of thumb is that if the joke could be construed as being at someone’s expense, then it probably is. Instead, make a clever, lighthearted comment that can boost morale. Be sure that in a desire to engage some, the humor doesn’t inadvertently alienate another.

It may take awhile to develop a comfortable way to use levity at work, but it’s a worthy pursuit when used wisely and tastefully.

Quote of the Week

“Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keeps friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.” Grenville Kleiser


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Handling Difficult People – Part 2

Part 2 – The Exhausting Employee

In most companies, being a manager comes with certain perks. The manager may get a bigger or nicer office. The manager might have an assigned parking space. The manager is likely to make more money and earn more vacation time. However, being a manager is not a total cake walk. There’s a reason managers typically earn more and get more perks. The job can be tough. While a manager’s job primarily entails managing people, products and processes, make no mistake that dealing with challenging employees is probably the hardest part of the job. “Difficult employees” – which can be manifested in a myriad of ways – are time-consuming to manage. It is usually the most draining and thankless part of any management position.

Consider that the average workplace in the U.S. is hugely diverse in terms of the nationalities/ethnicities, job skills, personalities, attitudes towards work and life, individual quirks and personal preferences of its staff.  It is a salad bowl of qualities, flaws and behaviors that, when mixed, may produce a qualified team and rich work environment.  But it can also deliver some “difficult” employees whose personalities, attitudes, or approaches to work and life are so skewed that they create problems for colleagues and managers alike.  What is a manager to do when faced with one of these exhausting employees?  One thing is certain…. ignoring the problem is NOT the answer.

An Exhausting Employee Defined

There are a number of behaviors, attitudes and faults that can turn an otherwise skilled, valuable member of the team into a ‘bad apple’ that threatens to spoil the bunch.   While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are some of the most common – and arguably worst – employee behaviors or traits that can be problematic.  They fall into four major categories.

Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

  1. Mr. Unproductive – works at a pace or achieves results that are below what is expected for the position
  2. Ms. Uncooperative – is unwilling to work with others on the team to accomplish goals
  3. Mr. Pessimism – has a bad attitude that puts a damper on every endeavor through perpetual negativity

Openly Oppositional Behaviors

  1. Mrs. Insubordination – refuses to obey orders or instructions; openly or covertly defies authority
  2. Mr. Antagonism – demonstrates hostility that causes friction with either coworkers, customers and/or managers
  3. Ms. Inflexibility / Mrs. Mulish – is intractable in taking direction or changing course based on management, customer, team or colleague feedback

Aloof Behaviors

  1. Mrs. Distractedness – is unable to get and stay on task due to attention to non-work-related matters.
  2. Ms. Disengaged – produces inferior quality or reduced quantity of work due to an underlying lack of interest in the work, workplace or work team.
  3. Mr. Careless – demonstrates a repeated lack of attention to detail resulting in important, costly mistakes.
  4. Ms. Chronically Tardy or Absent – is unreliable due to an inability to get to work on time daily.

Hyper-involved Behaviors

Mr. Manipulation – undermines productivity and teamwork by unfairly, unscrupulously or cleverly controlling or influencing a person or process.

Mrs. Emotionally-charged / Excessivelydramatic – is driven by emotion and attention and enjoys spreading gossip and rumors and sharing personal traumas with coworkers to a degree that is beyond professional.  They might have personal emotional breakdowns at work and add drama to any work-related issue.  They can turn small issues into major problems.

Mr. Know-it-all – is arrogant and has a perpetually-superior attitude, believing he can do no wrong.  This makes him stubborn and poorly receptive to redirection and criticism.   His rigid views are either the result of doing the job for a while and thinking he knows everything there is to know already, or an inflated sense of self-assurance typical of a freshly-graduated youth.

Does one or more of these behaviors or traits ring a bell?  Is there an employee at work that could be the poster child for one of these demeanors?  So what is a manager to do with a mulish purchasing agent, or an emotionally-charged customer service rep, or an insubordinate executive assistant?  One thing is certain.  If the approach for handling difficult employees in the past was to sweep the problem under the rug, it is time to put the broom away.

An Exhausting Employee Handled

The behavior of a “tough employee” might not seem like much of an issue to a senior exec.   However, working with a difficult person – day in and day out — can become a major irritant for those in closest proximity to and most-directly affected by the boorish behavior.  So while a high-level manager may want to blow off a difficult employee as “no big deal”, one exasperating employee in a department can kill teamwork, reduce productivity, destroy morale, and hamper excellence.  Even worse, exhausting employees can be grouchy, impolite, condescending, uninformed, misleading, inappropriate or simply wrong when dealing with subordinates, colleagues, vendors and clients.  So what is a manager to do?  Deal with it.  Here are some tips.

1.  Start by listening

We have two ears but only one mouth.  For a manager, that means he should listen twice as much as he speaks.  Often, with difficult employees, managers stop paying attention to what is actually happening.  In irritation, a manager will turn his attention to other things to avoid the issue.  Instead, the manager should become more attentive when someone’s not doing well.  The best shot at improving the situation lies in having the clearest possible understanding of the situation – including understanding the difficult employee’s perspective.  The exasperating employee may start acting very differently once he or she feels heard and the manager may uncover a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed.

2.  Give clear feedback.

Most managers spend months, even years, complaining about poor employees… and never give actual feedback about what that person should do differently.  Why?  Because giving constructive criticism is one of the most uncomfortable things a manager can do.  The key is to lower the employee’s defensiveness, and give them specific information they need in order to improve.

3.  Identify all possible solutions.

Sometimes an employee may not be a good fit in one position or department, but can still be a valuable asset to the company.  After all, it is expensive to recruit, hire and train new employees.  Of course, passing off a toxic employee to another department is not the answer.   A good manager will look for ways to fix the problem or find another solution that may benefit all concerned.

4.  Document everything.

Whenever a manager is having significant problems with a particular employee, document each issue and write recommendations made to remedy the issue.  Routinely managers are unable to let a difficult employee go because there is no record of the bad behavior. The failure to document sometimes arises out of misplaced hope that the employee will improve.  Other times, it is just a result of being too busy or just sheer laziness.  Good managers know, though, that documentation is key.  If the behavior improves, the documentation can be filed and forgotten.   If, however, the behavior persists, then the documentation provides a record of actions taken.

5.  Be fair and consistent.

Employees look at a manager’s deeds more than his words.  If a behavior is not acceptable, then it should never be acceptable.  If a behavior is expected, then it should always be expected.  Hold everyone accountable in the same way for the same actions.

6.  Communicate consequences.

If an undesirable behavior persists, the manager should indicate that while the situation still can be resolved, there is a deadline and consequences if it isn’t.  The consequence can range from something simple, like a written warning to the employee’s personnel file, to something more punitive, such as being passed over for a promotion, or even the ultimate consequence, termination of employment.  Faced with a real consequence, the employee will feel real pressure to change.  However, if change doesn’t happen, then whatever consequence was communicated must then be implemented.

7.  Keep the matter confidential.

No matter how difficult an employee may be, a manager should never discuss, gossip or bad-mouth one employee to other employees.  This is detrimental for various reasons.  It creates an environment of distrust and back-stabbing.  It pollutes others’ perception of the person, so that even if the employee improves, it is difficult to reestablish cohesiveness within the team or department.  It also makes the manager look weak and unprofessional.

By taking the above steps, many difficult employees can be turned around and become valuable members of the team.  Of course, there are some people who are either toxic or just don’t fit in with a particular corporate culture.  In those situations, it is sometimes best for all concerned for the company and employee to part ways.  While firing a difficult employee is often the hardest thing a manager has to do, it is a step that should not be avoided if a problem behavior that is detrimental to the company persists.  If it gets to that point, the manager should handle it directly, without hesitation or procrastination.

Quote of the Week

“The employees who are most difficult to reach are often the eccentric ones, the extremely talented ones, or the rainmakers who bring in the customer base.” Albert Einstein


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Handling Difficult People – Part 1

Part 1:  The Challenging Client

According to Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”  If employees are the lifeblood of a company, then customers are its food and water…. the basic nutrition without which a company cannot exist.  But digesting those nutrients is not always easy.  Companies often struggle with how to handle ‘difficult’ clients.  What is the right protocol for handling the most hard-to-please clientele?  After all, the adage says that the customer is always right.  If so, then how should a company handle those most challenging clients?  Should a company kowtow to an ill-tempered client, even if it is at the expense of the morale and respect of the staff?  Should a firm go the extra mile to please a fractious client even when that extra care means the transaction is no longer profitable to the company?   Does it make sense for a business to indulge the over-the-top demands of an exasperating client if it is going to overwhelm the business and cause it to neglect the needs of the rest of the clients?

Is there an invisible line that, when crossed, means the client is no longer right?  If so, where is that line?  How will the rank and file employees of a business know where that line is?  When it comes to handling challenging clients, companies do best when they communicate clear rules of engagement that protect the dignity and respect of both clients and employees, provide extensive training on how to handle difficult situations, and encourage staff to have genuine compassion for the needs of others.  Even so, when all else fails, there may be times when a business should  put the needs of the company and staff ahead of the tough client and just say no or say goodbye.

Servicing Clients Varies from Business to Business

The goal of every business should be to keep customers happy, but that’s not always easy, and customers can and often do get upset.  Handling challenging customers varies from business to business. For example, in the world of retail sales, meeting the needs of a difficult customer during a peak season or key promotion can be challenging.  In those situations, it is a balancing act between keeping one individual customer happy without it being at the expense of the rest of the customers.  Patience, customer service training and compassion, coupled with good staffing and management support are all key to diffusing a tense moment or addressing a tough customer’s demands.

On the other hand, in the world of technical or high-end services, such as law, accounting, lending and real estate, there are fewer transactions and each client can represent a lot of business for a firm.  In such a scenario, a difficult client is more likely to be handled with kid gloves, providing personalized attention and consideration to address specific demands.

Either way, when it comes to handling the toughest clients, every business must decide how it wants to handle out-of-the-ordinary issues and thorny clients handled.  The reality is that difficult customers exist in every business.  So, how does a company deal with difficult clients while staying sane?  Here are some key tips.

1. Listen and communicate with care.

Listen carefully to what a client is asking and mirror the terms that a customer uses.  Avoid words or phrases that are confrontational, careless or sloppy, such as “knock it together”, “hash out the details later” or “get around to it in due time.”  Communicate in terms that reflect back what the client is saying.   Mirroring a customer’s words puts them at ease and assures them their needs have been understood.

2.  Use clear, specific, measurable language to address issues

There are times when difficult clients, even those with legitimate concerns, just want to vent at great length and repeatedly. During such situations, a client may make broad generalizations, like “nothing is working” or “never hit a deadline.”  The best way to  tackle this is to ask for specific examples of things that aren’t working or deadlines missed.  Then propose specific, measurable solutions.  It is important to then ask, “If we solve your problem, does that fix the situation?” “If we are able to close on the property by end of the month, are we good?” Specifics are key when dealing with difficult clients.

3. Acknowledge without agreeing

Often agreeing with an irate client only adds fuel to the fire. Instead, acknowledge their position, letting them know they’ve been heard, and then shift the conversation to the resolution.  Move away from the ranting and toward a solution.

4. Focus on the goal

Keep an eye on what the client wants achieved; not their complaints and anger. Instead of handling petty details, work toward the end goal. If the goal is to cure the disease, don’t waste time treating symptoms that will go away.  Treat the illness instead.  If the issue for the client is to ensure that the property closes on time, it is more important for the Realtor to work closely with the lender and title agent rather than worrying about what to do if the contract expires before closing.

5. Document discussions

On a whiteboard, jot down a client’s complaints.  If the client starts to rehash an already-discussed issue, the whiteboard serves as a reminder that the issue has been discussed and addressed.  At the end of a discussion, the client’s notes can be added to a computer file to ensure that anyone else who works with the client will be aware of past issues.

6. Recognize a personality conflict

There are times when a particular employee cannot work with a particular client.  The best bet is to find another member of the team to assign to the client.  If possible, involve the client in identifying with who they’d prefer to work, so they understand that this is an exercise in service, not a slight.

7. Ignore or brush off minor remarks

People can sometimes be rude and not even realize it.  Disparaging or rude comments should just be ignored, if possible.  One nifty trick to make that easier is to add “From my limited experience” mentally to the end of a client’s deprecating statement. For example, if an attorney’s client that says that “attorneys are bottom feeders” or an accountant’s client says “accountants are pencil-pushing bean counters,” rather than feel insulted, mentally tack on “From my limited experience” to the end of the client’s statement.  It softens the blow.  A client may not think well of attorneys or accountants because of a limited understanding of the complexity of that profession’s work or a general attitude toward the profession.  The client may think they are just being funny, and not realize just how offensive the comment is.  By adding this mental tag line, it changes the perception of that client and makes it easier to tolerate minor disparaging remarks.

Sometimes none of these approaches works.  Once a business has done everything it can, within reason, to listen, address and satisfy the needs of a tough client, it may be time to consider other options.

1.  Put staff first

If a client is being verbally abusive to staff, it is important to put the employee’s needs and wellbeing first. It is never okay for a client to be abusive, and employees need to know that the management “has their back.”  The way employees are valued and treated by management is ultimately going to be one of the biggest drivers of how they treat customers.  When a client becomes abusive, that is the time to take action.  See options 2 and 3 below.  The company may lose the client, but the alternative could be losing invaluable members of the team.  Consider that the cost to replace key employees may exceed whatever profits come from keeping an abusive client… and that a difficult client may ultimately leave anyway.

2.  Just say ‘No’

While businesses should do whatever it can — within reason — to keep a customer happy, there are limits.  The key is to determine what is within reason.  The leadership or department manager should define what is or isn’t reasonable.  If it is a small business and one client is taking up an exorbitant amount of the business’ time and resources, there may be a need to just say “No.”  In such a situation, the customer should be told (in the most polite way possible) that that particular request cannot be met and explain why. Sometimes it is better to be honest with the client and do what makes the most sense for the business than to try to please the client at all costs.

3.  Fire a customer

A company is in business to make money.  It is not a charity.  No company can realistically afford to give away services or bend to every client’s whim, especially if it is not going to generate a return for the business.  The client should generate a return, not just for one project or one month, but over the long haul to make it worthwhile.

If a client is costing a company money by making unreasonable demands related to price, turnaround time, additional services, or by being mean to staff or impossible to please, sometimes it’s best to cut ties. Of course, this is not a tack that any business can afford to do regularly or casually.  There is a risk to the company’s reputation when a difficult client is let go.  In some cases, others will know of the difficulties of working with this client and will understand the decision.   But the reasoning for the decision must be sound.

Problems will arise and clients will complain. This is the nature of business. How a company ultimately handles those situations is the value it brings to the organization. Companies should learn from difficult customers and see them as a way to help strengthen the overall business.  It’s the disgruntled customers that will push a business to be its best and do its best.  And, in a way, those difficult customers may be a blessing in disguise.

Quote of the Week

“Statistics suggest that when customers complain, business owners and managers ought to get excited about it. The complaining customer represents a huge opportunity for more business.” Zig Ziglar


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Is a Workaholic the Best Hire?

Some say that it is better to work smarter, not harder.  That makes it sound like old-fashioned hard work is just that… passe.  That is, however, hardly the case.  The most successful people are usually deemed the most “hard-working”.  And by hard working, they mean people who work many long, arduous hours.  In fact, they lead the pack of notorious workaholics.  Consider this list published by BusinessInsider in 2012.  Howard Schultz, Starbucks coffee mogul, works 13 hour days, 7 days a week.  Mark Cuban, Mavericks owner and serial entrepreneur, worked seven years without a single vacation.  Jeffrey Immelt, GE CEO, regularly puts in 100-hour work weeks.  If that seems excessive, Marissa Mayer, Yahoo CEO, used to regularly put in 130-hour work weeks while at Google, in part by sleeping under her desk.  Tim Cook, Apple CEO, works practically 365 days a year and commonly has staff meetings on Sundays.  Indra Nooyi, Pepsi CEO, works 13-hour days while raising two daughters.  Ryan Seacrest, radio and TV show host, carries what is considered a preposterous workload.  Carlos Ghosn, Nissan and Renault CEO, spends 48 solid hours per month in the air and flies over 150,000 miles for work every year.

In a culture that prizes work ethic, overachievement, and financial success, people who are ‘addicted to work’ are seen by employers, colleagues, and customers alike as smart and ambitious go-getters.   These chronic hard-workers have morphed into something else… workaholics.  And this is often a label worn like a badge of honor.  Employers see this ultra-focused work ethic as a positive, not negative.  So is that what employers really want in their next hire?  Should every employment ad say “Workaholic Wanted”?

Is a Workaholic the Ideal Employee?

What is the difference between a hard worker and a workaholic?  A hard worker will not waste time and seek to get as much done as possible during each normal work day.  The workaholic will work as many hours as needed to get the job done and regularly works overtime.  A hard worker will work on a weekend when there is an urgent project or special event that requires it.  The workaholic works most every weekend and only takes a weekend off for special occasions or life events that cannot be ignored.   A hard worker makes sure all critically important work is done in a timely manner.  A workaholic sees every task as critically important and therefore feels the need to work all the time.

Here are some other signs that an employee is a workaholic.  Customarily check and respond to emails at night.  Regularly work on weekends.  Skip vacations and work through illnesses like colds and migraines.  Return to work weeks – or even days — after childbirth.  Work even when in the hospital.  Work right after the death of a close, immediate family member.  Work around the clock and sleep only when necessary.

At most companies, such employees are praised and considered the epitome of committed.  Truth be told, many businesses would want to employ an entire company full of workaholics.  At a job interview, they would want candidates to list their worst flaw as ‘workaholic.’  Employment ads could read something like this:

Workaholic Wanted.   The ideal candidate wants to work 12-16 hour days, without overtime pay or comp time.  He/she doesn’t mind checking emails at home (when home), and will answer work-related calls even on weekends.  The right candidate is willing to drop everything and rearrange own schedule to meet a new sudden work demand.  He/she looks forward to weekends as quiet time to be even more productive.  Instead of dreaming about a ski vacation while sitting at work, the right candidate will be dreaming about work while on a ski slope.  In fact, candidate will feel guilty when not working, preferring to forego vacations and pass on long-weekends in order to get the job done.  The right person will never call in sick, never need personal time and will scoff at the idea of work-life balance.

It is easy to see the appeal of having workaholic employees.  To many employers, workaholics are viewed as proactive and driven.  They take ownership of all that they touch.  They don’t leave for tomorrow what they can do today.  They are eager to get to the next task.  They don’t look for ways to pass off a task to a colleague.  The words “not my job” are not part of their vocabulary.   They don’t cut corners.  They aren’t interested in time off.  Their attitude is always “yes, I can” instead of “no, sorry.”

At first glance, they do seem like the perfect employees to have.  However, while employers may believe the best employees are ‘workaholics’, this is fundamentally flawed thinking.  Why?  That’s because it is unsustainable for most people to be a long-term workaholics.  Workaholism is a compulsive behavior that usually erodes health, happiness and peace-of-mind… and therefore ultimately affects productivity.  Studies have shown that there are four basic elements that determine whether individual workaholics are happy and healthy.

  1. The manner in which their families accept their work habits (if they even have family)
  2. The amount of autonomy and variety that exists in their work
  3. The degree to which their personal skills and work styles match those required by their jobs
  4. Their general state of health

Workaholics who were satisfied with these four aspects of their lives generally felt good about themselves as well. So it is possible to be a happy, healthy workaholic.  However, those who‘d had difficulties with one or more elements were more likely to experience the negative effects of workaholism. They risked what might be termed the three occupational hazards of the intensely self-driven worker: burnout, family problems, and heart disease.

Burnout or Brownout.

Burnout is a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and, eventually, a diminished interest in work.  Burnout is not just the simple result of working long hours.  The cynicism, irritation, frustration and lethargy of burnout can occur when an employee is working hard yet is not in control of how the job is done, is working toward goals that don’t resonate, is not respected or trusted in his/her work, the work is meaningless, and/or there is a lack of social support.  Burnout can lead to a complete nervous breakdown.

Family Problems. On a day-to-day basis, it’s not the workaholics who pay the biggest price for their work-obsessed lifestyles. Rather, it’s the people who live with them who suffer most. Because dedicated workers love their jobs so much, they tend to spend less time at home than most people. As a consequence, their families often feel neglected and unloved.  The result is often divorce.  On average, couples in which one partner is a workaholic divorce at twice the average rate (which is already about 50% nationally), according to a 1999 study conducted by Bryan Robison of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Health Problems. Similarly, studies have shown that workaholics may have an increased risk of coronary heart disease, especially if they are “Type A” personalities, which includes those with an excessive competitive drive and intense time urgency.  In fact, type A people are seven times more likely to develop coronary heart disease as are their Type B counterparts, which are more easy-going and aren’t so driven by time or competitiveness.

For companies that understand that employees are the lifeblood and most valuable resource of a business, these issues can become huge HR problems.  Most workaholics start out as a company’s star performer but end up either burnt out, divorced, or suffering from a heart attack or worse.  Those aren’t the kind of employees that a thriving, growing company wants.

Work-Life Balance

Instead of looking for workaholics, employers should seek hard working employees that seek to have a healthy work-life balance.  Work–life balance is focused on proper prioritization between work (career and ambition) and lifestyle (health, pleasure, leisure, family time, and spirituality). Boiled down to its simplest terms, work-life balance is about achieving something and enjoying something every day.   This is both simple and yet deceptively difficult to do.

Why is work-life balance so difficult to achieve?   First of all, work-life balance is a moving target.  It does not mean an equal balance. Trying to schedule an equal number of hours for various work and personal activities is usually unrewarding and unrealistic. Life is more fluid than that.  The best individual work-life balance will vary over time, often on a daily basis, for each person. The right balance for one person today will probably be different than for someone else today, and for that same person tomorrow. The right balance for a person who is single is different than for that same person when married.  And that balance will change again with children, or when starting a new career versus when nearing retirement.  There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all work-life balance to achieve. The best work-life balance is different for each person because each person has different priorities and different lives.

However, at the core of effective work-life balance are the concepts of achievement and enjoyment.  Achievement and enjoyment are the front and back of the coin of value in life. There cannot be one without the other, no more than there can be a coin with only one side. Trying to live a one-sided life is why so many “successful” people are unhappy and fall apart.  A balance of achievement and enjoyment each day helps avoid the “As Soon As….. Trap”; the energy-draining habit of planning for enjoyment “as soon as….” some milestone is achieved.  Perpetually putting off enjoyment for achievement is the definition of a workaholic.  And that should never be heralded as any company’s ideal employee.

Quote of the Week

“I used to be a classic workaholic, and after seeing how little work and career really mean when you reach the end of your life, I put a new emphasis on things I believe count more. These things include: family, friends, being part of a community, and appreciating the little joys of the average day.” Mitch Albom


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Is Less More When It Comes to Office Space?

Part 2 – Work Space, Creativity and Innovation

There has been a growing trend of businesses cutting back on the amount of work space allocated per person.  Sharing offices has become more common.  Cubicles are getting tinier.  And open shared space with a number of desks or work stations in one open area – once considered so cutting-edge — has become ubiquitous.  Employees are being packed into ever-smaller spaces.  There have been a few tech firms in the San Francisco Bay Area that have gotten to worker densities of up to seven workers per 1,000 square feet of space or 142 SF per employee.  The average just a decade ago was four workers per 1,000 square feet.  As the Russian adage says, they are packed so tight that there is no room for an apple to fall. Continue reading

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Is Less More When It Comes to Office Space?

Part 1 – Work Space and Productivity

Office design has been evolving over the last few years.  Once upon a time, all managers and executives had offices with walls, doors, desks and furniture.  Space was abundant and a deluxe office was a standard perk of working at most any successful company.  Clerical, secretarial and support staff also had individual work areas such as cubicles or were separated from other desks by partitions, cabinets and space. Continue reading

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Do We Still Need To Dress For Success?

Past studies have repeatedly shown that people judge companies, in part, by the outward appearance of its employees.  Likewise, employers evaluate employees, in part, on their ‘professionalism’ which includes appearance.  Over the years, research has validated that there is a bias in favor of well-dressed, well-groomed, good-looking people.  Indeed, for decades if not centuries, it has been widely understood that the visual aesthetic presented to others through appearance and apparel matters.

However, while business attire has been the de facto norm in corporate America for centuries, the hard-and-fast rules about corporate dress seem to be shifting.  Younger generations now feel that a person should only be judged by their inner qualities, not their outward appearance.   They argue that such things as casual clothing, tattoos, piercings, and unusual hair color don’t matter as long as an employee is intelligent, talented, skilled, and hard-working.  They also think that how a person looks on the outside (hygiene, attire, appearance) won’t influence how that person is perceived by others.  They ascribe to the wisdom that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and that one cannot tell a person’s character by his appearance.

That raises many questions about whether appearance still matters.  Does employee business attire really matter for a company’s success?  And does attire impact an individual’s success? In today’s changing work landscape, what constitutes professional versus unprofessional attire and appearance?  Is there still a clear line between what is and isn’t deemed ‘professional appearance’?  In today’s individualistic, casual culture, does the phrase ‘dress for success’ still have meaning?

Does Attire Still Matter?

Given today’s evolving views on attire, should appearance have any bearing on a person’s employability and career success?  Promotions?  Salary increases?  Bonuses?  If what a person wears neither enhances nor diminishes IQ or skills, does it or should it still affect career success?  The answer used to be a firm, unequivocal yes.  For decades, studies had proven that those with the best outward appearance (sharp but conservative attire, meticulous grooming, poised and confident) earned the most money and got the best jobs and promotions. It wasn’t so much the early bird that got the worm as much as the best-dressed bird.

But is that still true today?  Times are changing.  The management trend is toward a more relaxed workplace, in both space design and employee attire.  Increasingly, opulent management offices are being replaced by open work spaces.  Also, the HR Departments of many successful companies are adopting much more laid back approaches to employee attire and appearance.

Case in point.  In 2013, a person interviewing for an engineering/developer position at Google asked on Quora if jeans and a t-shirt was appropriate attire to wear to the job interview.  Once upon a time not so long ago, the answer would have been a definitive, resounding N-O!  However, Gayle Laakmann McDowell, Ex-Googler and author of Cracking the Coding Interview, replied that wearing jeans and a t-shirt to the interview was totally fine, but loosely recommended wearing jeans and a dress shirt “because, hey, why not?”  She added that really, no one cares. As a former member of the Google hiring committee, McDowell indicated that she had never seen anyone comment (in their feedback or even just in conversation) on how a candidate dressed.  As a final remark, she suggested that as a rule of thumb, a person should dress one small step up from the interviewers.  Since the vast majority of Google employees simply wear jeans and t-shirts to work, it’s not much of a leap to dress one small step up from that standard.

Google is perhaps the first and foremost example of the laid back corporate culture.  In fact, one of the company’s 10 principle philosophies is that “you can be serious without a suit.” Not only is the dress code casual, but the overall look and feel of the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California is also laid back and fun.  However, legendary Google is not alone in this HR shift.   Zappos, Facebook, Electronic Arts, Twitter, Genentech, AOL, Mars, and of course Apple (to name just a few) are all major companies that have adopted a more casual workplace atmosphere, including a relaxed dress code.  If so many major companies have gone ‘casual’ and not just on Fridays, does that mean that dress and success are no longer inextricably linked?  Are suits and business attire another dying relic?

Dress Code 2.0

For those that think that business attire and strict dress codes are fast becoming a thing of the past, think again.  Just as some companies are adopting a more relaxed dress code to attract and retain talented hires and spur creativity, other companies are going in the opposite direction.

Indeed, although the tech boom brought with it a laissez-faire attitude to dress code — adding business casual to business vocabulary – there is a growing trend moving business attire back to where it once was. Big business is going back to a more formal dress code, realizing that they only have one opportunity to impress their clients.

The Middle of the Road

Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to employee attire, some companies have opted to offer different dress codes for different departments.  In a department dealing with clients, a manager might be expected to wear business attire… a suit and dress shoes.  But the accounting and IT departments in that same company, who never deal with customers, might be allowed to wear jeans and casual shoes. Customer-engaging staff would dress in a way that is suited to the audience.  The approach is that the fashion should fit the function.  There might be a designated day that allows for business casual attire.

While traditional business attire may sound stuffy, companies understand that clients must be thought of as first priority. Proper attire leaves an invaluable professional impression on clients.  Overall, customer perception must be the underlying factor in making any business decision, even the menial ones. The company benefits by forever putting its best foot forward.  And, in turn, employees who show that they care about the company by dressing for success are more likely to do well also.

Pride in Appearance

To be clear, people who succeed in business come in every shape, size and personality type.  They wear all kinds of clothes.  Smart and successful people don’t necessarily need to dress a certain way to be successful.  And not every day requires the time and attention (and cost) for formal business attire. Some days, sitting behind a computer screen for eight uninterrupted hours really begs for nothing more than comfortable, casual attire.

However, the truth is that what is presented on the outside often speaks (either accurately or inaccurately) to what’s on the inside.  It is perhaps a bit too optimistic, to the point of naïve, to think that people will only judge based on a person’s inner qualities.  Before one ever gets to know a person, they “see” them first.  Before the first word is ever uttered, impressions are formed and judgments are being made.  Tailored clothes = sharp mind.   Wrinkled shirt = sloppy work habits.  Does that mean that a person wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt is unqualified or incapable?  Of course not.  Could that attire give that impression?  It could.  Does that matter?  It depends on who is getting that impression?  A client.  Definitely.  A coworker.  Perhaps.  A boss.  Absolutely.  It has been proven that dressing well can increase a person’s income and increases the chances of getting promoted.  Moreover, dressing well is important to one’s self-respect and composure.

So, despite new trends to dress down and relax, dressing for success still matters at certain times and places, based on the context.  Companies can dare to create Dress Codes that aren’t a one-size-fits-all approach and offer options based on audience.  Ultimately, attire should be a matter of self-pride.  Employees who want to make a good impression with clients, bosses and coworkers would do well to remember that appearance does matter… will always matter…. as long as people have eyes and can see.

Quote of the Week

“Great men are seldom over-scrupulous in the arrangement of their attire.” Charles Dickens


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Avoiding Email Blunders

Email is a key tool that allows business professionals to communicate very quickly in writing in great detail.  It has replaced traditional phone calls and long-winded memos.   Emails have also greatly reduced the need for group meetings just to share information.  Emails also serve as written proof or validation of past requests, instructions and discussions.  Practically no business today operates without email. Continue reading

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Benefits Employees Want Most – Part 2

Although the most headline-grabbing economic issue in the U.S. during the last decade was the ballooning unemployment rate, this particular woe has been decidedly declining in direct proportion to the rise in jobs.  With the Department of Labor Statistic reporting unemployment holding at about 5.6% – 5.7% since October 2014, job gains are still being reported in retail trade, construction, health care, financial activities, and manufacturing in January 2015.   Ironically, though, a decline in unemployment is now accentuating a different concern for U.S. businesses; namely, the need for more highly-skilled employees.  U.S. companies report wanting to only hire people who are “job ready.”   But such skilled workers are increasingly harder to find. Continue reading

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Benefits Employees Want Most – Part 1

Salary is not the only variable that employees factor when considering a company to work for or job to keep or leave.  While pay is obviously a primary concern – after all, the reason people work is to earn a living – there are a number of other variables employees consider when deciding where to work.  An employee’s benefits package is often just as important.  However, which benefits are valued most by employees depends on the employees and their particular circumstances.  A woman with small children might value flexible work hours and a Flexible Spending Account for child care while a man nearing retirement might value a company’s 401K plan and more vacation time.  One might say that the benefit of a benefit is in the eye of the beholder. Continue reading

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